Interview: Giuseppe Capotondi on the Art of Deception in “The Burnt Orange Heresy”

After showing such a gift for twists and turns with the thriller “The Double Hour,” Giuseppe Capotondi was looking to keep things simple with his latest, “The Burnt Orange Heresy.”

“We shot it in 25 days, three locations and four actors – plus some killing,” says Cappotondi, knowing he wouldn’t need much more for an entertaining nailbiter.

He wasn’t wrong, working from a wonderfully nasty little script by “A Simple Plan” writer Scott B. Smith, that relocates the action from the U.S. to Italy where James Figueras (Claes Bang), an art critic has been beckoned by Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), a wealthy and mysterious patron of the arts to coax a new work out of a legendary recluse (Donald Sutherland) who has been staying at his villa, waiting for inspiration. The critic is promised an exclusive interview in exchange that could go a long way towards redeeming his career after he had burnished the credentials of some works that turned out to be forgeries, and with things looking up in other ways — his latest talk brings out a bewitching beauty (Elizabeth Debicki) who is curious about his craft — he throws caution to the wind when it seems he’ll get more than he bargained for if he takes up Cassidy on his offer.

When Figueras’ assessment of the situation proves to be less attuned than his eye for fine art, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” begins to roil under its elegant veneer, turning a weekend lakeside retreat into a descent into hell, though what anguishes its lead becomes devilish fun for an audience. At a time when we could all use an escape, Capotondi delivers and then some with his second narrative feature and after the film’s theatrical run was cut short by the COVID-19 crisis, opening the weekend before theaters closed for good, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is reemerging at drive-ins this weekend and in the last proper sit-down interview this site conducted before the pandemic, the director spoke about the adjustments he made to bring the novel to the screen, shouldering the responsibility of directing Mick Jagger and the value of giving things a second look.

Is this a genre you’re attracted to generally?

I am, and especially this one where I read the script and the sophistication of the dialogue and these larger than life characters reminded me of old school film noirs, so I said to myself, let’s try to push the aesthetics of it in a way [where] you have these very tall and beautiful, handsome actors almost gliding around rather than walking. It reminded me a bit of Hitchcock.

Did you immediately think of Lake Como? It isn’t where the novel was set.

The book was set in Florida, and also the original screenplay was [too], but then in a way for logistic reasons because it’s so expensive to shoot in Florida. Palm Beach is also a bit off-limits now with Trump, so I thought that maybe to give it a more rarefied location/setting, it would match better with the sophistication of the dialogue and the fact that Lake Como is so steep, it very rarely gets direct sunlight, so it’s all bounce and the hills — actually they’re mountains that create this lake, they’re very green, very dark — so you get a very special light there, this hazy weather feeling that helped the overall mood of the film. And this villa where we shot at is empty, nobody lives there, so we [could] recreate everything from scratch.

Including the artwork on display, as I understand. What was that process like?

Well, I wanted to use lots of Italians from the ‘60s and ‘70s and some modern and contemporary works and we did a little research and we came out with some artists, some of them are very famous. We actually had a few originals that were lent by collectors — big insurance issues — but the rest of it was created from scratch by the production designer’s team.

Was any of that interaction with the art world informative for telling this story?

No. [laughs] The [people in the] art world that I’ve met, they’re very nice people, and the whole art thing informs the film in a way that we’re talking about what’s true and what’s not, so it all really made sense, but the art people that I met like David Gurk from the Pace Gallery in New York, they’re sweet and they have a lot of self-humor.

What sold you on Elizabeth and Claes to be in the film?

First of all I had seen their previous work and they’re fantastic actors, but they look like old school film stars. They’re so handsome and so tall and so perfectly comped because I wanted that look – I wanted Cary Grant and Kim Novak. You always try not to make too much theater when you do a movie, but if there’s two people talking, there’s only so much you can do. It’s not that you can put the camera somewhere weird, just so you can give it a little rhythm. You hope that the actors are so good that even if it’s a long scene sitting down somewhere, you just get something from them that will light up the scene because what do you invent in a room with two people talking at the table?

Did you find out whether they had chemistry before shooting?

We read the script for a couple of days, just with Elizabeth and Claes, and I had them for dinner…actually, it was a lunch that then turned into dinner at my house, just because I wanted them to meet and see what the chemistry was. But you never know until you get on set. If there’s no chemistry, I don’t know how to work around a lack of it. It’s a matter of luck, like everything in life.

Speaking of luck, I understand there was some involved in getting Mick Jagger onboard.

Yes, because we heard he was looking for a last role to play. I went to see him at his office in London and I was super nervous because it’s Mick Jagger, but the moment I got in, he’s actually very, very humble and approachable. I was almost thrown back. You would expect a rock star, but he was actually very sweet.

When it’s presented to you as “he’s looking for a last part,” does that add any pressure for you?

At the end of the day, it’s his responsibility. It’s his face there, so I can only do so much. [laughs] But it wasn’t an easy part. He’s got 10 pages of dialogue, so it must’ve been quite hard for him, [especially] not being used to acting that much anymore. His last role is 20 years ago, but I really enjoyed my time with him. He’s very energetic and he’s aware that he’s not a professional actor, and every day on set, so he’s very humble and wants to do another take and then “Can we do another one?” So it was a very nice experience.

Was there anything unexpected that happened that made it into the film that you like about it?

There were a few changes on the run while we were shooting because of logistics and money —when we started to shoot, the flies [that are involved in a crucial scene] were peacocks, but they’re impossible to work with, so we moved onto flies, which I really like.

I noticed there was an insect wrangler in the credits!

They’re dead flies. The other ones are CGI. And the funny thing that you would have to watch it over again to know, but tthere are a few easter eggs in the film, always playing with the idea of what’s true and false. For example, the very first scene in the corridor — that’s a CGI corridor because it’s so long, and at the very beginning, next to Claes’s name [in the credits], I had it made so you see the end of the stage, so you have to look for it, but you see that it’s not a real corridor. And also the opera that you hear is sung by men, not women — they’re countertenors — so all along the film, there’s those easter eggs always playing with the theme of truth or perception of truth.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” will be available on digital, Blu-ray and DVD on August 25th.

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